Missing Something Holy
Perhaps we are not so different from the Taliban after all.
“In our ministry, there’s little work for me to do. Therefore, I spend most of my time on Twitter. We’re connected to speedy Wi-Fi and internet. Many mujahedin, including me, are addicted to the internet, especially Twitter.”
Truly, they are just like me. That confession comes from an interview with Abdul Nafi. He is twenty-five, a married father of two, and a former Taliban soldier.
“What I dislike about Kabul is its traffic and what I fear is its thieves. We have never seen this much congestion, and in comparison to Kabuli drivers, we can hardly make our way through the streets. I don’t know how people live in such a mess.”
Nafi is now a bureaucrat. The Afghanistan Analysts Network, a small think tank registered in Kabul and Germany, recently published a set of fascinating interviews with former Taliban fighters living and working in the Afghan capital. Interviewer Sabawoon Samim spoke to five Taliban members ranging in age from twenty-four to thirty-two who had spent some six to eleven years fighting for the movement at different ranks before the victory of the Islamic Emirate in August of 2021. It is one thing to conquer; it is another thing to govern. The interviews reveal men coming to grips with the goods and ills of urbanization and modernization after the religious intoxication of life in the wilderness waging holy war. They are diverting, amusing, and unexpectedly poignant.
Samim’s conversations with these young men are intensely interesting in themselves, but they also make fresh the social ills and inconveniences that plague all developing and developed societies. There is, after all, a cost to everything; one person’s progress is paid for by another. The interviews might be treated as a fruitful case study for Max Weber’s sociological classic, “Politics as a Vocation,” though that is too much to explore in a simple column. More importantly, perhaps, for American readers, these conversations suggest the stifling feeling—one of lowered horizons and future mediocrity, an oversocialized, too mediated cage—that seems to define so much of our political and cultural moment, especially for young men.
Omar Mansur is thirty-two, the married father of five. He complains about the traffic, too. He also doesn’t like the nine to five, or in his case, eight to four. “In the group, we had a great degree of freedom about where to go, where to stay, and whether to participate in the war,” he said. “However, these days, you have to go to the office before 8 AM and stay there till 4 PM. If you don’t go, you’re considered absent, and [the wage for] that day is cut from your salary. We’re now used to that, but it was especially difficult in the first two or three months.”
Abdul Salam, twenty-six, a married father of three, has learned a similar lesson. “There is a proverb in our area that money is like a shackle. Now, if we complain, or don’t come to work, or disobey the rules, they cut our salary.”
Indeed, much of what the men have to say is entirely predictable. The extensions of American interventions in the Middle East beyond initial invasions were, after all, premised on the idea that human nature was pretty much everywhere the same, that the Afghans, and the Iraqis, and anyone else, would want what we want. And that is true, in much more complex ways than our leaders and pundits excited by regime change and nation building ever seemed to acknowledge.
“In the time of jihad, life was very simple. All we had to deal with was making plans for ta’aruz [attacks] against the enemy and for retreating. People didn’t expect much from us, and we had little responsibility towards them, whereas now if someone is hungry, he deems us directly responsible for that.”
That is from Huzaifa (most Afghan men have only a given name), twenty-four, a former sniper and married father of two. For him, life in the big city is not all bad, but nor is it all good either.
What I don’t like about the city is that it’s like a closed society. People live cheek-by-jowl but don’t interact with each other. This is in part bad, as people don’t cooperate with each other, but also has a positive feature: unlike the village, no one bothers you about what you do, what you wear, who comes to your home and who leaves it. People don’t interfere in your life and don’t talk about you behind your back.
There is another thing I dislike and that’s how restricted our lives are now, unlike anything we experienced before. The Taleban [sic] used to be free of restrictions, but now we sit in one place, behind a desk and a computer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Life’s become so wearisome; you do the same things every day.
Of course, these are Taliban fighters. They waged a holy war for twenty years. They have priorities alien to our culture, which has embraced the anomie and atomization that came with our wealth.
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“I was appointed to a job in the Ministry of Interior. I’m sort of happy with my job but often miss the time of jihad. During that time, every minute of our life was counted as worship,” said Kamran, twenty-seven, a married father of two. Kamran worries that office life is corrupting what made the Taliban such an enduring force over decades of conflict. “I’m very concerned about our mujahedin. The real test and challenge was not during the jihad. Rather, it’s now. At that time, it was simple, but now things are much more complicated. We are tested by cars, positions, wealth and women. Many of our mujahedin, God forbid, have fallen into these seemingly sweet, but actually bitter traps.”
The Afghanistan Analysts Network interviews reveal the discontent that comes after victorious rebellion. In their universality—the sympathy one can’t help but feel reading them—they also prompt a question. What kinds of rebellion come from such discontent? In important ways our discontent here in the United States is likely to be worse, for you will have noticed that all these sensitive young men are married, and fathers, and they have a religious end to their life and actions. America’s men, increasingly, have neither faith nor family.
As detailed well in Tim Carney’s 2019 Alienated America, Donald Trump won in 2016 by speaking to and for people who saw their way of life in irreversible decline. Trump shocked the comfortable with his “American Carnage” inauguration speech, but he was only voicing the discontent and fear of his voters. They want to make America great again. Seven years later, after three years of Covid restrictions and growing lawlessness, the carnage is worse. Marriage rates and church attendance are down, and drug overdoses are up. And as you and I sit in traffic, or at our desks, or scroll Twitter, American civil society continues to crumble.